Forty years ago, University of Chicago alum Edward T. Cotham Jr. began leading walking tours through historic Galveston, Texas. Each time he’d stop groups at the spot where the famous “Juneteenth order” was issued, he’d get quizzical looks. “June what?” people would ask.
Then a budding Civil War historian (who has since authored several books on Texas military history), Cotham was astounded by how few knew anything about that landmark day—June 19, 1865—when Union troops came ashore at Galveston Bay and freed the last major group of enslaved people in Confederate territory.
Though the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two-and-a-half years earlier, freeing enslaved people in the “States and parts of States … in rebellion,” it wasn’t until Juneteenth that this promise was realized by military order.
This was a day of independence celebrated by African Americans from the start, one just as important as the Fourth of July. Largely unnoticed outside of Black communities until this century, annual Juneteenth celebrations spread from Texas, where it officially became a state holiday in 1980, throughout the United States. The holiday has been hailed by some as the oldest continuous commemoration of emancipation in America, marked for more than 150 years by parades, pageants, and picnics.
“I thought, ‘Someday someone needs to write a scholarly book about the history behind this event,’” said Cotham, AM’76, who is chief investment officer and emeritus board member at the Terry Foundation, the largest private scholarship provider in Texas, alongside his authorship of historical works. Four decades and much painstaking archival research later, his Juneteenth: The Story Behind the Celebration landed last summer, just weeks before President Joe Biden declared June 19 a federal holiday. (Cotham swears the timing was sheer luck.)
Much of Cotham’s research centers around the document at the heart of the holiday—the understatedly titled “General Orders No. 3,” embraced by formerly enslaved people as their “freedom paper.”